Breast milk is considered beneficial for so many reasons: it not only helps infants grow, but also protects them from infections and illnesses when they're too young to get immunized. But could the antibodies in the breast milk of moms who have tested positive for COVID-19 help adults fight the novel coronavirus? Some experts think they could. Lars Bode, director of the University of California San Diego's Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation Mother-Milk-Infant Centre of Research Excellence, recently told Vice that studying breast milk now could potentially have long-term effects on the treatment of COVID-19 and other health crises to come.
"Understanding how there is antiviral components that potentially protect infants, I think that's a good thing that will help us for the next pandemic," he explained. "But just imagine, we could look to human milk to see if an infected mom makes antiviral components — antibodies, oligosaccharides, whatever it is — and then use that knowledge to make those components synthetically, which is absolutely possible, and use that to treat adults."
For years, Bode has been studying the positive effects breast milk can have on mothers and their babies, so he's hopeful that the antibodies found in breast milk of women who tested positive for COVID-19 could potentially help treat the coronavirus in others. Currently, he's researching whether or not moms can transmit the virus to their babies via breast milk, although the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said it's unlikely.
"There are a bunch of other things in [breast milk] that are those magic components that do more than help the infant grow," Bode said. "They really protect the infant and the mother as well from multiple different diseases, from certain pathogens, from bacteria, and from viruses as well, and that's really where the story starts, why we're so interested in this topic when we come to coronavirus."
"There are a bunch of other things in [breast milk] that are those magic components that do more than help the infant grow."
Rebecca Powell, a human milk immunologist and assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, is also studying the potential connections between breast milk and COVID-19. Recently, she put a call out on social media that urged breastfeeding mothers who are living in the New York City area and believe they have — or are recovering from — COVID-19 to donate their milk so she can research whether or not antibodies found in the samples can be used to treat the virus.
Right now, Powell is offering lactating women living in New York City $5 per ounce of donated milk, and she'll even pick the samples up. Additionally, she will accept samples from moms living outside of the New York City area via mail if they have COVID-19, suspect they could have it, or have a high risk of exposure.
"There's a lot of lactating people out there that are getting infected and would be ready and willing to donate milk — I can tell you because I have hundreds of emails of people who want to participate, and many of them have said they had highly suspected infection or a positive test," she told Vice.
She added: "They're out there, and I don't think it should be overlooked."
For Powell, studying the antibodies that could be present in breast milk is invaluable, especially considering a recent finding in China. There, researchers at three hospitals have drawn antibodies from the blood of patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and injected them into 10 gravely ill patients. Although the research is preliminary, patients who received the injection — known as convalescent plasma — have seen their symptoms subside, according to a study in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.
According to Powell, the durable nature of the antibodies found in breast milk could make a transfusion to infected patients even more effective. "You can take it one step further because you can ask the question, 'Well, if we find that there's really potent antibodies in the milk, can those be used therapeutically in a way that Mt. Sinai and other hospitals are now using convalescent plasma — to treat those who are really ill?'" she said.